May 24, 2013
Attending the General Assembly of the United Nations
shouldn’t be a problem, but there was more to it this time
Even the drabbest of Argentine presidents have usually performed well abroad. The world, after all, is a stage when you are the head of a state. The United Nations, for instance, has to hear you out at its annual General Assembly if you are president. The whole concept of a general assembly seems to be that, each year, regardless of the context, each nation has a right to make its point. It’s a principle that stands for Barack Obama of the US and also for Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Those are the rules of the United Nations General Assembly game.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has always relished General Assembly week in New York. Why should this year’s assembly have been any different? The President addressed the UN forum on Tuesday. UN speeches usually carry enough rhetorical punch to make a heap of headlines. The President’s words certainly carried news. Argentina, Fernández de Kirchner said, had accepted Iran’s offer to open talks between foreign ministries in a bid to solve the conflict over the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Iran had floated the idea of a bilateral meeting the week before. Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to accept the offer is a major diplomatic development. Six Iranian officials are wanted by a court in Argentina in connection to the bombing. The President told the UN assembly that she expected real progress from the talks concerning the AMIA case. Argentina, Fernández de Kirchner said, is ready to accept a trial of the Iranian suspects in a “third country.”
The Iran side of the story was even bigger come Thursday when Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman actually met with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi. Further talks have been planned for next month. Come Friday, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires released a statement saying that Israel had “received with great disappointment the news that Argentina accepted a meeting with Iran.” Also on Friday, Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, frowned at Argentina’s subtle diplomatic shift regarding Iran. No contacts with Iran, according to the US, can be benign.
Iran, and concern about its nuclear muscle, was very much the subject of Obama’s UN speech. Ahmadinejad, who was less confrontational than in past years on addressing the assembly, said on Wednesday that he hoped the talks with Argentina would settle any “misunderstandings.” It’s difficult to guess how progress will be made in the talks because Iran denies any role in the AMIA attack (and in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires). Argentine Jewish community leaders say they don’t expect much to come out of the talks and urged Argentina to only specifically discuss with Iran bringing the attackers to justice.
Read that Israeli Embassy statement again. It was not happy about “the news.” There you have it. You can think what you like about the talks with Iran. But it was “news.”
Also news was that Fernández de Kirchner on Tuesday used her UN speech to lambast the International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde. Lagarde, fielding a question from the opposition daily Clarín, said on Monday that Argentina risks being shown a “red card” in December if it doesn’t do something about accusations that the state-run statistics bureau INDEC manipulates the inflation and growth rates. Argentina, Lagarde said, is good at football. So it knows very well what a red card would imply. The IMF on September 18 formally reprimanded Argentina for not improving the quality of INDEC’s data. The IMF’s board is scheduled to consider Argentina’s situation again on December 17. In between that formal IMF statement and Fernández de Kirchner’s speech at the UN Lagarde, who is not that difficult to imagine clad in the black uniform of a referee, spoke about pulling out a red card.
Fernández de Kirchner was not amused. Argentina, she said at the UN, is not a soccer team. Argentina is “a sovereign nation that takes its own decisions, and does not accept threats,” she added. Here, suddenly, the battle of the Cristinas (or the Christines) had erupted. The IMF is not popular in Argentina (and less so with soccer crowds) because many blame the IMF’s orthodox recipes for the infamous economic meltdown of 2001 that plunged millions into poverty overnight.
Fernández de Kirchner clearly relished the chance to argue a bit with the IMF like a player shouting at a ref to get the crowd on her side. The head of FIFA, a world football association, was doing a far more impressive job than the IMF, Fernández de Kirchner chortled. At least FIFA can manage with organizing a world cup every four years while the IMF is hopeless at organizing the world economy, she said. There was a ripple of applause from the UN audience. Fernández de Kirchner added that Argentina is disliked by the IMF because it sets a “bad example” by not swallowing its recipes.
In a nutshell, CFK’s UN speech was about Iran, dissing IMF economic recipes and Malvinas (again she urged Britain to accept “dialogue” over the issue of sovereignty).
That was it, right? What else could there be to report from New York? After that speech world leaders usually get to stay a bit longer at a really nice hotel and add a couple of activities to make the visit all the more pleasant.
Yet there was clearly something more to this year’s visit to New York by Fernández de Kirchner. On Tuesday, a small group of demonstrators bashed saucepans outside the hotel where the President was staying. The protesters carried placards complaining about corruption and calling for freedom of speech in Argentina. Is that big news? Not necessarily. Yet clearly the demonstrators of New York were worked up. They complained about inflation, about the President “refusing to give press conferences,” and about crime. The same loud complaints were heard in Buenos Aires City and other parts of the country on September 13 when thousands took to the streets banging pots and pans.
Argentina, by the look of things, is in a state of agitation. On Tuesday night, a small group of saucepan-bashers gathered outside the apartment of Judge Norberto Oyarbide in BA. Critics claim Oyarbide is a biased judge controlled by the national government. The protesters were complaining about Oyarbide being named (through a computer system that randomly selects judges) to handle a case filed against Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno by a self-employed customs service worker, Paula De Conto. De Conto has sued Moreno for shouting abuse at her over the phone over the dealings of a “ghost” Brazilian company.
Oyarbide on Wednesday announced that he was dropping the Moreno due to the “moral violence” of the protest. Another small protest also took place outside Moreno’s apartment in the Constitución neighbourhood on Wednesday. Moreno, speaking at a trade union gathering, said the demonstrators could “shove the saucepans up their backsides” for all he cared. But the anti-Moreno bashers also distributed a photoshopped digital poster that depicted Moreno lying in a coffin with a bullet wound in the middle of his forehead. Justice Minister Julio Alak said on Thursday that the national government will press charges against those who threatened Moreno, a nationalist economist known for his draconian regulation of supermarket prices and imports.
Could things get even more agitated? They could. If on Thursday night you happened to be walking through Barrio Norte, the upmarket neighbourhood in Buenos Aires City, you would have heard the din of pots being banged ringing down from hundreds of apartment building. So what on earth was the problem now?
The problem apparently was Fernández de Kirchner’s appearance that night at Harvard University to field questions from a group of students. The President’s answers to those questions apparently were not going down well in Barrio Norte (and possibly beyond). But why so much anticipation about an university talk? The protesters are bashing saucepans, but living in Argentina now feels more like being in a pressure-cooker — with Kirchnerites and anti-Kirchnerites arguing in boiling water.
Possibly the anticipation about one more talk at an elite school was due to the President rarely offering press conferences in Argentina to take difficult questions. The students of Harvard on Thursday night asked about a potential re-election, the currency exchange controls, and the Broadcasting Law that the national government argues will force the opposition media group Clarín to downsize come December 7.
The air was so thick with tension that at one point some students jeered Fernández de Kirchner. The President tried to take the situation in her stride. This, she told her audience, is Harvard not La Matanza, the gritty, sprawling working-class district in Greater Buenos Aires that is a Kirchnerite bastion. Was Fernández de Kirchner trying to be ironic?
Who knows. But the head of the University of La Matanza said the next day that he was “hurt” by the President’s comment. The Kirchnerite mayor of La Matanza rushed to Fernández de Kirchner’s defence, saying that the national government has poured cash into public works and state education in the district. Fernández de Kirchner, in what was understood to be an apology, tweeted “a kiss” to La Matanza on Friday.
Fernández de Kirchner had also taken questions at Georgetown University on Wednesday night. Inflation? The President said that if, like the opposition argues, Argentina has an annual inflation rate of 25 percent then the country would “explode.” Currency exchange controls? CFK said they are a fabrication of the media. The President also cracked that joke by Bolivia’s Evo Morales in front of a US audience. The only country, she said retelling the joke at Georgetown, that is safe from coups is the United States because it does not have a US embassy.
In Harvard, where some of the students were in a taunting mood, the President refused to acknowledge her ruling coalition has any plans to reform the Constitution so that she can shoot for a third consecutive term. But after all those questions, the question that now remains unanswered is if the pressure-cooker that at times is Argentina will blow its top — regardless of what is cooking inside it.